Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent as a time for hospitality...and respect

For the Christian church, Advent is the church year season that began last Sunday, November 27. Liturgically, it is "New Years"--the beginning of the church year. Denominations that hold to the liturgical calendar religiously (sorry...), sing only Advent hymns and refrain from mentioning Christmas, which is its own season. Many of us, though, eschew this rigid liturgical correctness and sneak in a Christmas hymn or two, and let the excitement build toward that season as each week's Advent candle is lit at the beginning of worship. So sinful are we...

Advent's traditional focus is on the "second coming" of Jesus Christ. The word Advent, itself, comes from the Latin, adventus, which is from the Greek, parousia, meaning "end-time things." A majority of evangelical Christians believe that Jesus will return, literally, to the earth and bring about the end of the age. A variety of books (and movies) have been produced on this fantastic subject, and the mere mention of it gets many a believer salivating for more stories about how the good guys get their deliverance and the bad guys get fried at the "end of time." Some folk actually get quite giddy at the thought of Jesus "coming in the clouds" and plucking believers out of the deplorable mire of earthly life. But what if that is not our theological ethos? What do others believe about Advent?

We DO believe it is a season of hope. However, hope here is not the selfish "wish" of individual redemption, but the expectation of God showing up. And not just at the end of time, or to pluck out the "true believers," but showing up to work in partnership with the people of God to help build a global realm of justice and peace for all people. This is the true promise of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit (counselor, helper, gift-giver, one who empowers) came upon the fledgling church to walk with a people committed to redemption for all and a just, abundant life for all of God's people. Advent is a time of believing that God has and will continue to show up via the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts and minds of us all, and lead us to a new promised land where "every mountain and valley shall be made low and the rough places a plain" (the rich humbled and the humble made rich). Hope gives way to peace, joy, and love, practiced by humanity for the common good as well as individual fulfillment.

In essence, we believe Jesus keeps returning, day after day, week after week. We are the initial beneficiaries, but as the blessings and grace come to us, they are passed on through acts of mercy and kindness, justice and peacemaking. Might Jesus actually show up "in the flesh" again? Very possibly, but rather than hold our breath waiting, we are nudged by the light of Advent to act like he's already here, and like we are already "on the clock" regarding the Jewish understanding of tikkun olam--fixing the world.

Hospitality and respect are two key ways we begin to do this. "Welcoming the stranger" as a full-blown member of the community, and respecting all life (but most certainly humans) are sure signs that the Advent of God is happening. If you want to see what the world would look like if Jesus came back, love your neighbor as yourself. Seek relationships with people very different than you, and respect them as if they were your kin. Expect the Spirit to create within you a welcoming persona--an attitude of blessing others because you have, yourself, been blessed.

This is Advent, and this is why it is a season of light in a darker world. Stop the waiting; get with the "doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God."

Oh, and sneak in a couple of upbeat Christmas hymns like "Joy to the World, the Lord has Come" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" just to cope with the gray skies and what seems like a creeping fear all around us. Expect God to show up...today...tomorrow...forever. And may you live life like Jesus just moved into your neighborhood. Salaam and Shalom, Yinz!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trump's America

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. We continue as a polarized country. We need to find a way out of the angst and national malaise. I don't know how we are going to do this. And it's not realistic to just say, "God's in charge." When it comes to national affairs, I think God has largely put US in charge. So, what do we do?

There are several different "audiences" with which to deal if we are going to find a way forward:

1. Those who supported Trump because he gave voice to their anger, fear, and possibly nationalistic, misogynist  and racist views. These may be the people who are responsible for the 60% rise in "hate crimes" that have been reported by the FBI since the election.

2. Those who supported Trump because they just feel left out and dis-empowered. These are the people in the "flyover" areas often talked about by pundits, but according to filmmaker Michael Moore, rarely taken seriously--except by the Trump campaign. Moore suggested--months ago--that these people wanted to "throw a 'Molotov Cocktail' into Washington" and that would be Donald Trump. He predicted way back then that these people would put Trump over the top. They did.

3. Those who supported Trump because, ultimately, they are party loyalists, and Trump was their candidate. Some of them overlooked his flaws; others just put on a cloak of denial, but either way, they voted the ticket.

4. Those who supported Trump because they just really didn't like or trust Hillary Clinton. Period. It pretty much didn't matter what the other candidate looked like. They were NOT voting for Clinton. Some of these folk extolled Trump's business acumen and believed these credentials could help the country.

5. Those who voted for a third-party candidate. Some did this because they didn't like Trump OR Clinton; others because they LIKED Stein, Johnson, or whomever; and some because they wanted to help get the Libertarian Party over the 5% mark toward legitimacy.

6. Those who supported Clinton because they did NOT like Trump. They weren't big on Clinton and the "baggage" or "drama" she brought to the ticket, but they were NOT going to vote for Trump.

7. Those who felt Clinton was very qualified for the office, based on her senatorial and State Department experience, but who still struggled with some of her questionable judgments such as the exorbitant speaking fees for Wall Street firms and the whole private email thing. Many of these were women and men who felt that the combination of experience and her gender--the potential first woman president--overcame the negative.

8. And finally those who enthusiastically supported Secretary Clinton, many of whom did so back in 2008 as well.

So, things are not as simple as "Trump vs. Clinton" people in this divided land. This was a much more complicated presidential race than it first appears. However, the extreme "poles" do tend to draw attention to themselves--the "alt-right" group that were the screamers and the brawlers at his rallies, and the strong feminists (including many men who were allies) who supported Clinton at least to some measure because of the trailblazing opportunity of voting for a woman.

Notice that I have said nothing about religion in any of these scenarios. Why? Because people of various religious backgrounds and practices were all over this list. It is true that the group branded "evangelicals" by the press voted heavily for Donald Trump. This is a really lousy label, however. "Evangelical" means "people of the Good News." I believe that every person who calls themselves "Christian," and who believes in witness to her or his faith, is an "evangelical." If you invite people to come to church with you, you are practicing "evangelical" theology. If you believe that Jesus left this world better off than when he came, you are "evangelical." If your faith makes you smile, treat people with compassion and respect, and you like to exude positive "vibes" in the name of Jesus, you are "evangelical." I could go on. I call myself and evangelical liberal, which is what Mr. Wesley, founder of Methodism, was. He believed in the the Bible as our guide to faith, but was very liberal in his interpretation of how it applied to life in the Eighteenth Century. He preached faith in Christ in the streets, and in the fields of England, but organized efforts to provide public education, reform the prison system, and encourage fathers to work hard and provide responsibly for their families (which was a really liberal social idea in that century!). Methodists were "people of the warm heart" when it came to having a passion for their Christian faith, but who also had a burning heart to change the society. That would be my definition of "evangelical liberal."

What the media is calling "evangelical" are Christian people who ascribe to certain core dogmas such as being "born again," believing the Bible should be taken literally, and who believe people who don't have the born again experience are condemned to Hell. This understanding of evangelical generally is applied to very conservative individuals who include among their social dogmas being anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-same-sex marriage. Many people thus labeled "evangelical" in the popular culture voted for Trump because of their conservatism, and in some cases, just because Trump promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

These two paragraphs are a gross oversimplification of the different understandings of "evangelical," just as my Eight Audiences listed above are an oversimplification of the fields of American voters in this most recent election. However, both are meant to provide at least a framework for understanding the "mess we's in," so to speak.

So, how do we go forward? In a world that still believed in compromise, we would look for some common ground:

1. People need jobs who have been displaced by outsourcing, the death of certain industries like coal and steel, and the rapidly changing job market, period. Expanded opportunities for education, training and re-training are needed.

2. Something has to be figured out with healthcare. The ACA was a flawed attempt to offer coverage to all, and I believe this is still a common goal of many Americans. They just don't want to mortgage their home to pay for it, and are tired of deductibles now approaching half of the annual premium outlay.

3. Our children need a quality education that should not be based solely on one's ability to pay for it. Public systems should not be funded merely through taxing people in the district. This means that wealthy districts will have good schools, and poor or inner-city districts will have poor schools. And it's not just the money. Just pumping dollars into schools won't help without changing some of the paradigms for testing, teacher competence, and administration. And all students should be able to afford a college or trade school education after high school, for all jobs, including the trades, will require specialized training.

Let's call these things the "basics." I don't believe that any of the Eight Audiences above would have a problem with these "essentials." What if we petitioned our new government to work on these things? If you look at them carefully, you will see that the most liberal liberal and the most conservative conservative would have a fundamental problem with any of these three foci. There will be different ideas as to how to approach them, and some very conservative (especially Libertarians) may balk at government even taking on the challenge. But I'll bet the majority of Americans would affirm these things. I'll bet even the "evangelicals" would be OK with them.

If the government could stimulate job creation and help catalyze education and training for people to be qualified for the jobs which are created, this would be good. If we could come up with a better way to make affordable healthcare available to all, this would be huge, but it would most likely involve doing something that Secretary Clinton said would be very difficult: separate healthcare from employment. And if we could create systems that would make education and trade training widely available and affordable, an educated citizenry would be prepared to do occupy the jobs created, going forward.

Again, this is certainly an oversimplification of complex, national challenges. However, what I believe is not only practical but necessary if we are to make any progress is finding common ground goals that every constituency can believe in, and ones that, if accomplished, would benefit all Americans. Hence, I submit these three for your consideration.

Conservatives could still keep their "pet" agendas: strong defense, the Second Amendment, smaller government, etc., and they could continue to fight for these things. Liberals could fight for theirs: equal rights and pay for people of any gender, gender identity, or orientation; First Amendment freedoms, dismantling racism, etc. And "evangelicals" (as well as other religious groups) could fight for their agendas: anti-abortion, freedom to practice religion without undue government harassment, etc.

But maybe, just maybe we could greatly advance our country by making sure people had jobs, a decent education, and healthcare, first. We'd all have more energy and resources to work on the "pet" agendas! And our society would be that much more just.

Incidentally, these are, in a form, the kind of reforms Mr. Wesley was about in Eighteenth Century England.

Now, to quote comedian Dennis Miller: "This is just my opinion--I could be wrong." Shalom, Yinz.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Praying for the elections...'

I know, the last thing you want to hear now is the word "elections." Well, I'm praying for the elections--praying they will be over! Have we ever seen such a divisive time in the American experience? I would be happy to return to the "attack ads" of yesteryear. Today's are absolutely depressing. "If you vote for (fill in the blank), nuclear war can't be far behind. Every puppy in America will cease to exist, and you will be homeless. Our veterans? Fuggedaboutit!" And then, five minutes later, you see basically the same ad with the opponent's name in the blank! What are we to do? VOTE!

Now, while I agree with an article I read recently that said that it is a fundamentally American right NOT to vote, if one chooses, I do believe we should vote. If you are too disgusted to vote for the top names on the ticket, at least vote for your state and local offices who will represent you in "domestic" matters. If they, too, have been duking it out and acting like children, write in someone you think could do the job! At least vote for your local civic authorities, as they will set your tax rate! Oh, and don't forget that Pennsylvanians have a referendum on the ballot that is stated in so much doublespeak that you really DO have to do some reading to figure out which way to vote.

But vote. I can't take anyone seriously in a conversation about anything political when they admit they didn't vote. Voting is our "chip in the game," so to speak. Show up at the polls, and vote. I have a cure for those who feel that the nastiness and myriad misinformation present in this election cycle have rendered them so debilitated that they feel they can't vote: Read! Read editorials, articles in newspapers and from all manner of news sources. Don't just take in a steady diet of MSNBC or Fox News (and, God forbid, Breitbart or Daily Kos). Read editorials from people who have won Pulitzer Prizes, and who write for newspapers (or electronic media) that have been around for awhile. But READ. And don't believe everything you read, but enough that you can form an "educated" opinion, and one that is your own, not someone else's ideas just rammed down your throat. Then, make an educated vote. There is no way to know if your decision is "right" or "wrong." But make it well-thought-out!

Don't vote straight party ticket! Even if you wind up voting for every candidate of a given party, at least go through the exercise of looking over every name on the ballot and making conscious choices. Savor your right of casting a ballot.

And, as people of faith, of course you should pray about your voting decisions, as well as for all of the others casting ballots, and for each and every candidate as well, because some of them are going to win, and they may not be your choices. The world will not end if your candidates are not elected, despite what the goofy ads say. I think, ultimately, God does have some say in this whole thing, but I do not believe God is in the corner of any specific candidate. God will always be doing triage and picking up the pieces of the inevitable "less than stellar" performance of any government. That is why the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, chapter 13, to pray for these people. Even Paul understood that politicians are usually quite human (maybe more so than their constituents?), and that prayer may be what keeps us alive.

Finally, please don't be a "single-issue" voter. It certainly is your right. Heck, you can vote for someone just because you like his tie or her hairstyle, but governing requires so much more than focusing on a single issue. As I read FaceBook, I see lots of people using abortion or veterans issues as the sole delineator as to for whom they will vote. This stuff is hard, and life is extremely complex. There are no simple solutions to our very difficult problems. That' s a fact, regardless of what the goofy ads say. Voting for someone for high office just because of what she or he says about the military, or immigration, or women's reproductive rights will not get us to where we need to go.

And once it's over, pray for the winners and the losers. They all need grace. And if they turn out to be lousy leaders, pray for each other as we all need grace. And if you are really disappointed in what these people do or don't do in office, consider exercising another right of your American citizenship: put your name on the ballot next time around!

One final prediction: Come Wednesday, November 9, we will all still be here. America will continue to be America, with its incredible blessings and its vexing problems. And as people of faith, our best response is to pray, and then get to the work of being a hard-working, responsible citizen, a loving neighbor, and the kind of patriot who lives it instead of just hiding behind the flag. Not a bad recipe for being a good Christian, too! Happy voting, Yinz, and above all, shalom!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...